By Theresa Carson
On Aug. 6, nine young men professed religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience at Techny, Ill., and became members of the Society of the Divine Word. They are Derek Nguyen, Zachary Smith, Carl Gales, Theodore Nguyen, Hoc Mai, Luke Henkel, Luis Panuco-Carmona, Hai Pham and Jorge Zetino. Three of them have chosen the path of the brotherhood and will pursue higher education in the fall. The remaining six will enroll at Catholic Theological Union as seminarians preparing for the priesthood.
When 25-year-old Luis Panuco-Carmona was a teenager, he told his family that he planned to study architecture when in fact he had his heart set on becoming a missionary.
Born in Durango, Mexico, Luis was nine when Franciscan brothers visited his hometown and left an indelible impression on him. "They traveled from village to village and asked for meals and sheets," said the 25-year-old. "They wore no shoes. I want to be like them."
At the time, his dad worked in Canada and the United States in construction and agriculture for most of the year while his mother and grandmother raised the children and worked on the homestead. His parents worked hard, he said, so that their children would have a good education.
When he was 12, his family moved to the United States. The adjustment had an impact on him. He had to become accustomed to new foods, housing, language and culture. He asked himself what he could claim as his own.
"When I go back to Mexico, they say you’re not from here," he said as he placed a copy of "Emotional Intelligence 2.0" by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves (TalentSmart: 2009) on the desk. "For me, finding identity was a challenge."
When Luis entered school in the United States, the main barrier was the language, but after two years he became comfortable with English.
"I had an ESL teacher who accompanied me," he responded gratefully. "I could ask her anything."
When he was a teenager and living in Mexico, he wanted to enter the minor seminary. However, his parents thought that he didn’t realize what he was saying.
He credits his grandmother for helping him become the person he is. "Grandmother passed on everything to us," he said. "She supported our spiritual, personal and educational lives. Because of this woman, I have become successful."
In fact, so successful that he founded and managed a thriving event-planning business while still in high school in Fayetteville, N.C. The business began organically. Members of his parish recognized his reliability and artistic talent.
One year, the Parish Council decided to make him responsible for the Christmas Nativity decorations in church. The décor attracted parishioners who then gave donations for more liturgical settings. Soon, parishioners appealed to him to plan their weddings, conferences and quinceañeras. Like the young ladies being honored at the quinceañeras, he himself was only 15 years old. Before long, Luis visited other parishes, promoting his business, which he called Diamante (diamond in English).
For the Carmonas, business is a family affair.
"We are a very communal-oriented family," said Luis, who is one of 11 children. His oldest sister lives in Mexico, but all his other siblings reside in North Carolina near his parents. Together, they provided event planning, photography and videography.
"My family is very artistic and very talented," he said. "My sister-in-law is a cake-maker and does hair and make-up. A sister is a DJ. My dad is in construction. We’re full service."
At age 19, he had a girlfriend and a booming business, yet thoughts of religious life continued to tug at him.
He first heard about the Society of the Divine Word through a magazine called Oye. He quietly began to apply to several religious orders.
During the retreat, participants served the homeless and shared life experiences. At one session while a deacon shared a reflection, "suddenly everything disappeared. I felt the presence of God. I heard a clear voice say, ‘This is the moment now. I have called you. Now is the time to tell your family.’"
When he returned to North Carolina, doors to missionary congregations seemed to open for him. He turned the business over to his sister and headed to Iowa to begin studies at Divine Word College. He completed his bachelor's degree in 2015.
Novitiate began the following August. For the first half of the novitiate year, he worked at the Little Mexico Thrift Store, which the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters operated. During the second half, he worked alongside the sisters at the Life Learning Center on the Northside of Chicago, tutoring students who needed extra help.
"I believe that everything teaches us a lesson," he said. "I strive to be open then I can see the graces of the blessings that are there."
Novitiate year gave Luis an opportunity to express his faith and spirituality through art. His artwork will be on display at Techny Towers Conference and Retreat Center until Aug. 30. Techny Tower is located at 2001 Waukegan Rd., Techny (Northbrook), Ill., and is open during daylight hours.